Monday, 8 October 2012

What journalists want! An interview with a regional business editor

 Ladies and gentlemen, I am waging a war. A war against bad PR.

As you read this, at least four journalists in the UK will have been affected by an episode of bad PR. These episodes can affect the nervous system, forcing muscles in the arm to contract and slam down a phone in seconds. Brief moments of depression are often reported afterwards, where journalists wonder whether it is worth carrying on. Experts often prescribe caffeine straight afterwards to help persuade journalists not to slip too far into this state.

But you and I both know that is just a sticking plaster – one where the sticky stuff is wearing out.

Here are some graphic incidents of bad PR:

Phone call #1
PR person: “Hi I have this story for you, we’re a marketing agency representing a shoe factory in Midsummer and –“
Journalist: “We’re in Oxdown. That’s 80 miles away.”
PR: “Oh, er, sorry… bye” *click*

Phone call #2
Journalist: “This press release you have sent – says in your survey that 60 per cent of 30-year-olds have overdosed on Acme profiteroles and had hot flushes. Were any from our town? The data in it seems a bit general.”
PR person: “Oh, um, er, let me check. Bye” *click* - never rings back

Phone call #3
PR person: “Hi, were you interested in our lifesaving new product?”
Journalist: “Not sure mascara really saves lives. Thank you. Bye.” *click*

Although made “hilarious” for your reading pleasure, these are only slightly altered versions of the real thing – calls made daily from less-good PR folk who have sent out wrong, or frankly meaningless, messages to journalists.

I know, because I endured it as a reporter. As a PR man, it drags what I do into disrepute, or at best mediocrity.

One other person who has dealt with the same thing, and I concede has had much more years in the reporting hotseat, is business editor for the south Humber Bank, Dave Laister. Dave has a wealth of  “unique” reporting experiences. These include everything from being smuggled into a buy-out meeting, wearing a hi-vis 007 henchman overall and, 15 years ago, reporting on A-Level results… as he collected his.
But despite a colourful career, he maintains he is not an expert in business.

“I don’t have a single business qualification to my name – everything I know I have learned from interviews with business owners and their staff. Journalism was what I wanted to do. English was my strongest subject, and reporting was something I was passionate about.”

After five years on newsdesk, Dave felt the draw of the news patch and couldn’t resist taking up a new reporting role.

He took the helm of the business desk, and covers news as it happens across North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire ­– including industrial towns such as Grimsby and Scunthorpe – and includes Immingham, the country’s largest commercial port.

So what makes good news for him?

First it’s not any of my side-splitting examples, above. “We do get PRs acting for companies desperately trying to get free advert in the paper, for something which does not serve the wellbeing of the area. We get PRs sending stuff through which isn’t for the patch, having clearly not looked into the background of where we are,” he said.

“Then there are the odd stories which can get picked up by the national press; surveys which actually have nothing to do with your paper’s town or city. However it’s not obvious one way or another if they are anything to do with your town or city. Not obvious that is, until you ring them. Then the person on the other end of the phone says they will check their details and ring you back. Needless to say they don’t.

So, if you think you can somehow pull wool over the eyes of someone who checks his emails for breakfast, and has done for 15 years, think again.

So what does work for him? Here is the good news. As a business editor he tries to look at every press release and takes every phone call: “I’d rather get nine pointless phone calls than none at all,” he said. “I’m always looking for a positive story about the area – we’re not redtop hacks who are going to go rummaging through your litter bins. I get no enjoyment in writing a negative piece about the town.”

In fact, it almost makes me wonder what it would be like if a mediocre PR person did get hacked, Leveson inquiry style, by a red top hack.

I guess that’s what media hell will be like – mediocre PRs being hacked by disgraced dead journalists, who will then print erroneous stories about lifesaving Acme profiteroles – before realising they’ve been scooped by a torch-wielding imp. And this goes on, and on, and on. Forever.

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